Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Plain, White Family

The story had been swirling around in our family for years. Each time it was told, the intrigue and mystery grew. I imagine what little information poured out as the story unfolded became slightly embellished. However, the possibilities that the story held, gripped me and mesmerized me.

It was first told to me 10 year ago, a tale resurrected from long ago memories. I was pregnant with my first child and was grieving the loss of my great aunt, Iris. The family was gathered at the funeral home waiting for visitors to pay their respects and offer condolences. An elderly gentleman entered the room. He was of African-American decent, the only of such color in the room.

The funeral director approached him and asked, "Are you a friend of the family?"

The gentleman replied, "No, I am family."

I am sure my head did a double take as I sized up this man, of a different race, whom I had never heard, as he came into the room quite confidently. He approached the open casket of my dear, great-aunt Iris. My father shook his hand, my grandparents spoke to him and I just stood there.

Later, when the evening was winding down, I found the time and words to ask my grandmother who the man was. This is what I was told:

His name is Charlie, my grandmother explained. When he was a young man, he came to live with my great-grandparents, my Aunt Iris and my uncles. It was the same house that Iris lived in until her death. He lived under the stairs, which was a tiny bit of a closet, and helped around the house and yard. He came to live there because his own mother was having trouble, financially, with caring for him. It was always understood that somehow he was family, but no one really talked about it. She added, he still lives in High Point over on Cedrow.

The story was told with a matter-of-factness that surprised me. After all, I was just told that one of my great-grandparents must have been involved in an interracial affair. Most likely, my great-grandfather, Frank. It was a potential scandal of magnificent proportions taking place in the 1910s or so. The fact that this man still resided in our town and yet, was not still involved in our family greatly bothered me. Questions swirled around in my brain.

What was/is his relationship to ours?
Do I have an entirely other family that I do not know?
Is that when the more than the average, wide-nose trait that dons most of the Aulbert family moved into our gene pool?
If he is family, what happened that no one really knows the story?
What has happened to him?
If related, why did our family abandon him after all these years?

Over the years I have often thought of this man, Charlie. Being the investigator and the family writer, it is probably in my nature to seek out these stories of massive intrigue. However, with three small children, a sister with cancer, building a house and well, life, the quest for the truth fell by the wayside. That is, until, my grandfather passed away this summer.

Charlie, being in the early stages of Alzheimer's, did not come to the funeral this time. However, my grandmother looked up his number and called to inform him of this passing. His wife, Elouise, answered the phone. My grandmother explained why she was calling. Elouise called out to him, "Charlie, it is Reba. She is calling to tell you your brother has died." And, with that, I decided that it was time, time to uncover the truth.

I procured Charlie's number from my grandmother and phoned him. His son answered the phone and I explained who I was and that I wanted to talk to Mr. R about his relationship with my grandfather. An appointed day and time was set for the next week.

I arrived at their house, anxious to meet what I hoped was a whole new branch of our family. Given the amount of political correctness thrust (read: crammed) into my education at Chapel Hill, I was pathetically riveted by the fact that I could have a mixed-race heritage. According to my education, I should almost be ashamed of being from a plain, white family. The implications of somehow escaping this label were limitless in my mind. It was my single focus....to bring together and celebrate my new-found African-American heritage.

The door to the house opened before I could even knock. The elderly black man said, "Hello!" and immediately drew me to him in a big bear hug. His wife, I presumed, stood behind him waiting her turn for another hug filled with warmth, making me feel quickly at home.

We sat down and and after thanking them for allowing me into their home, I wasted no time getting straight to the point. I recounted what I knew of Charlie and his relationship to our family. I finally asked, point blank, "Are you related to our family?" I held my breath...

Charlie replied, "No, not blood related."

I admit, I was disappointed. The next logical question was, "Then why do you refer to my great-aunts and great-uncles as your brothers and sisters?"

Charlie answered, "Because they treated me like family."

I sat there listening, slowly comprehending what he was telling me. Soaking it all in.

He continued by saying, "My family was very, very poor. I had 13 brothers and sisters and my mother could not take care of us all. Your family brought me into their house to help around with the yard and other house maintenance. I ate at the table with them. I slept in their rooms in a bed. I went to church with them at the Quaker church, sitting on the same pew. I was fully accepted by them. I was one of their own. They called me their son. That was really rare in the 1930s."

He continued to tell me more about life with my great-grandparents - funny little anecdotes, insights into personalities, etc. When he came to live with them, it was the first time he had experienced indoor plumbing. He was, understandably, very grateful for this fact. I have always known that my great-grandparents were not affluent. In fact, they were not even what was considered middle class. Money was always a bit tight and yet, they took on another mouth to feed and clothe.

As I listened, I became keenly aware of the ridiculousness of my original goal of the visit. It was completely embarrassing. Instead of thinking that my family would be elevated to some higher, more esteemed level because of its racially diverse and scandalous background, I realized that my family was, in fact, already quite different. They were unique because they broke the racial barriers that were prevalent during those days. They knew how to treat another human being with dignity, compassion and love, despite the culture of the south and really the entire nation. This fact was profoundly more important.

I heard from Charlie that time was the reason for the disconnect between our families, not discord. He moved out of the house when he was around 20 and lived on the other side of town. It wasn't common for races to intermix socially. Both were just more comfortable in their own territory. My great-aunt would continue to call him to help around my grandfather's house until my great-grandfather's death in 1971; my aunt always paying him for his help. He was extremely thankful for my family and their care. I teared at hearing his heart-felt appreciation.

We continued to talk. Me, hearing more about his youth, his family, his grown children. He, hearing about mine. I left Charlies' house not sure if I would ever see him again, but filled with a better sense of the stock of people from which I come. It is a legacy that I will enthusiastically continue and teach my children. My plain, white family is maybe not so plain after all.


Angela said...

What a great story! How wonderful! Keep writing down all your family remembrances to preserve them for your kids. It breaks my heart to think of all the family stories that have been lost along the way because no one bothered to write them down.

nena said...

wow! how awesome. What a neat heritage!

Anonymous said...

i loved you true story.